GOP Utah attorney general debate turns into a slugfest

Attorney General Sean Reyes and his Republican primary challenger David Leavitt came out slugging Tuesday in their only debate.

Leavitt, the Utah County attorney, said Reyes kept a “for sale” sign on the attorney general’s office, does the bidding of big donors, failed to properly oversee controversial no-bid contracts and often ignores Utah issues to seek fame on international human trafficking raids.

Reyes said that Leavitt is unqualified, that his justice reform proposals are unrealistic and too expensive, that he lies or makes up information against Reyes, and spent much of the past decade in the Ukraine advising its government while Reyes was working in Utah.

Leavitt’s most pointed attacks during the debate at the University of Utah sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission came against Reyes’ donations.

Reyes has raised far more than Leavitt — at least $1.35 million during his current four-year term, as 38 donors gave $10,000 or more each. He took large amounts from industries, including high-interest lenders, opioid makers, tobacco manufacturers, multilevel marketing firms and time-share companies. Leavitt reported raising $371,000 — but $300,000 came from his own pocket.

“The attorney general’s office, as it has been in the past, is for sale,” Leavitt said.

For example, he said Reyes took $125,000 from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and then joined in legal action it sponsored that Leavitt said was for partisan political purposes that had nothing to do with Utah, such as pushing for the release of President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“Mr. Reyes is duty bound to follow the Republican Attorneys General Association because they give him so much money,” Leavitt said.

Noting that RAGA’s “dark money” come from groups that need not disclose their donors, he questioned if that led to the Attorney General’s Office to work for questionable contracts — such as one for surveillance to Banjo that the state later canceled after disclosure that its chief had ties to a white supremacist group and was involved in a synagogue shooting as a youth.

“So people give money to people that don’t have to report, who give to RAGA, and then RAGA gives to the attorney general. And somehow we wind up with contracts that bypass the procurement standards. Go figure how that happens,” Leavitt said.

Reyes said he abides by all procurement standards and asserted he has restored honor to the office after scandals that involved his two predecessors. He said he does not base legal decisions on donors, and has sued groups such as opioid makers, Google and Facebook.

He charged that Leavitt twists the facts or lies about his actions. “My opponent will say anything to get elected, twists everything to make it sound pernicious and sinister. No, we’re doing it the right way. We win the right way.”

Reyes said while Leavitt now attacks his big fundraising, Leavitt once bragged about raising big money himself back in 2008 in an unsuccessful run for Congress.

“It’s nice to have a big family with a bunch of money and friends in high places,” Reyes said quoting an old newspaper column. Leavitt is the brother of former Gov. Mike Leavitt. “He bragged about how much more money he raised than the incumbent [in 2008]. Many of those folks are now supporting me.”

Leavitt also took aim at Reyes for his campaign going back on a pledge to return $50,000 in donations from Washakie Renewable Resources, whose executives tied to the Kingston polygamous clan were convicted on federal fraud charges.

Reyes said the money was already spent, so it could not be returned. He also noted that the governor and legislators had taken money from the group. Reyes said he had no idea the Kingstons were tied to criminal activity and would not have accepted it in that case.

Leavitt said, “It’s an interesting argument to say that everybody is doing it, the governor is accepting contributions from known criminal families, that the Legislature is accepting money from known criminal families. The difference between the attorney general and the other two groups … is the attorney general is the person who investigates these people.”

Then Leavitt questioned why Washakie was investigated by the federal government instead of the state. “Could it be that the fact that they were giving money to every Utah politician has something to do with it? I think it probably did.”

If elected, Leavitt said he would seek legislation to limit campaign contributions for attorney general candidates because it is the only elected state office with the power to investigate and prosecute.

Reyes took aim at Leavitt for saying he is running mainly to push criminal justice reform that would reduce plea bargains, saying that the current system largely avoids trial by jury and puts justice at risk. He also said that only violent criminals should be jailed, and other punishment and rehabilitation should be found for others. Leavitt has called that the most important issue in the race.

Reyes said, “Certainly criminal justice reform is an important issue, but it's not the most important issue. And anybody who tells you that that it is not qualified to be the attorney general.”

Reyes also said taking all cases to trial would increase costs 100-fold and is just “some quixotic idea that he has that has no necessity founded in the Constitution.”

Leavitt replied, “It was a quixotic idea. It was one that was devised by a group of people called the Founding Fathers of our Constitution. John Adams said that representative government and the trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty.”

Both candidates took shots at each other for out-of-the-country work that might suggest Utah issues take a back seat in their priorities.

Reyes said, “I have been standing and leading here in the state while my opponent’s been in the Ukraine for most of the last decade.” Leavitt was in the Ukraine to serve as a legal adviser to its government.

Leavitt in turn took a shot at Reyes for participating in some international human trafficking raids.

“Mr. Reyes has done a phenomenal job in highlighting the evils of human trafficking. Unfortunately, most of Mr. Reyes’ work on human trafficking has been outside the state,” he said. “There’s a form of human trafficking occurring in Utah for which the attorney general gives no audience: 90% of the people in our jails are not violent criminals.”

Reyes has served as attorney general since 2013. Leavitt was elected Utah County attorney in 2018, and previously was the Juab County attorney. They face off in the June 30 GOP primary.

The winner will go onto the November election to face Democrat Greg Skordas, who during the debate live tweeted about the questions — and mostly attacked Reyes.

About allegations that Reyes did the bidding of big donors, Skordas tweeted, “These crooks also know all too well about the ‘For Sale’ sign on the door of our current AG’s office who willingly takes tens of thousands of dollars to look the other way and do absolutely nothing to stop this.”